hope

Encounter

While in graduate school, I worked as a doula for teenage girls at a local pregnancy center. Most, but not all, of these women were first time moms, without a supportive father in the picture—and very often without a supportive family member of any kind. They could come to the agency for parenting classes, health info as well as baby clothes, car seats, etc. My role was to accompany them at the hospital during delivery, to encourage them, and to make sure that they had a voice in their delivery and their stay at the hospital as they welcomed their babies.

This role is by far among the most influential experiences of my adult life, as I was invited into the most intimate and vulnerable moments of a family’s’ early beginning. Culturally-speaking, unless a woman has a sister, there is seldom an opportunity to be invited into this place of welcoming a new child with an expectant mother, as is custom in so much of the world. Comparatively, birth in the U.S. has become an isolated experience—especially for single mothers who are choosing to give life.

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I remember the first day I showed up for a meeting with the other doulas at the local pregnancy center. I was excited, nervous and proud to be there after all of my training. The woman at the front desk handed me a clipboard for check in. I grabbed it and began reading through the paperwork.

[Based on the nature of the questions, it was obvious that she thought I was a teen mom.]

Self-conscious about looking young for my role, combined with the indignation of being assumed a pregnant(!), teen, I quickly corrected her and took my “rightful” seat at the table for my meeting.

I have re-visited this encounter often, and with regret.

Of course I could have been mistaken for a teen mom—after all, they were the clients served by this agency. The fact that the receptionist didn’t know me from any other woman at the clinic meant that I was new, not judged. And yet, that was my unfortunate takeaway at the time.

Given a healthy amount of hindsight, I have realized a few things. More than welcoming sweet babies into the world and having a small role in the vulnerable, lonely work of these brave women who choose to deliver their babies in difficult circumstances, I owe these women a debt of gratitude for their genuine (and perhaps even, unintended) education.  Allowing themselves to be accompanied by a stranger as they crossed the threshold of familiarity and childhood into and unknown and frightening world of young adulthood as a single mom showed me just how much I had to learn about radical self-sacrifice, love and trust. Sure I was the birth coach they’d been assigned, but these women were without question, my teachers.

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Doesn’t this exchange get to the heart of today’s Gospel reading from Luke? Jesus is instructing the Pharisees to get mixed up in a diverse crowd—the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind—‘those who can never repay you.’ This is the exact message Pope Francis has been echoing since 2014 when he first spoke of a Culture of Encounter.

We must strive and ask for the grace to create a culture of encounter,

of a fruitful encounter,

of an encounter that restores to each person his or her own dignity as a child of God,

 the dignity of the living person.

— Pope Francis

I am slowly learning.

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How often do these scenarios Jesus is describing come up for us? You know the ones where we are hosting a dinner party and inviting all kinds of folks we don’t know and might never see again. They’re infrequent. It does remind me of those magnanimous folks who start planning at this time of year, to host the Thanksgiving or Christmas meal for out-of-towners, for college students, foreign exchange students, etc. These are the people with the uncanny knack for gathering folks because it is simply time to gather and we are made for communion with one another.

The daily readings are hinting at the waning of ordinary time, the season of anticipation and preparing to welcome those we might not be expecting. How are you hearing the invitation to see stranger as guest?

Am I seeking a place to gather and be known?

Am I being invited to consider a role as such a host?

What might I be surprised to learn I have in common with those I have separated myself from?

With whom am I already in relationship that is bearing fruits of unexpected grace?

Suffering Makes Us Stronger...But Why?

They decorate colleges across America, my Facebook newsfeed is brimming with them, and for some reason, I’m always torn between fascination and annoyance when I confront them. If you’re thinking “political shouting matches” – well, you’re probably right – but this time I’m talking about motivational quotes, particularly motivational quotes about suffering. Suffering, and defeating it, are often the subject of catchy lines, in trendy fonts, across mountain-scapes. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Inspirational quotes offer us some variation on this theme. I think the appeal of these formulations has two parts:

First, it gives meaning and purpose to suffering. This sentence fosters the belief that suffering is happening for a reason, and, consequently, the world happens for a reason.

Second, it gives us a sense of control. We have power, not only over the suffering, but over our response to it. Hiding in this statement is another statement as well: We will make ourselves stronger by defeating suffering.

Perhaps the easiest answer to these inspirational quotes is dismissal. Try to power play with the universe, just try. The skeptic argues. Ultimately the universe wins. We die. I admit sometimes “the skeptic” speaks in my own voice. Like I said, I’m frustrated – frustrated with the pretty-packaged enthusiasm of “inspirationalism.”

Yet I’m still fascinated by inspirational messages.

But – why? Well, I have both suffered and watched others suffer. I want something to say. I want an answer. I can philosophize on “the problem of evil” or “the problem of pain” – but most importantly, it is a question that demands an answer from me.

Is there meaning in suffering? What about meaning in the world? Is there a plan? I experience these questions most when, selfishly I admit, I personally am the one suffering. But I also desire happiness for other people. 

And I’m not alone. This desire is a great human trait. We find it in history, in literature, in art, and in science. Seriously, who has browsed through “Humans of New York” and not wanted each person profiled to live a happy life? We want their lives to have meaning too. I’ve seen too much love for my voice to be the skeptic’s voice. Still, something nags me at the words “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Makes me stronger. 

Is that really what I want?

Well, no. Not exactly. I do want to be stronger, but only so I can have something else, like the admiration of my friends or recognition as a cool person. This realization has helped me understand St. Paul’s frequently quoted words about suffering from his Letter to the Romans. 

" . . .We also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character. . .”

Exactly! You might be thinking. Suffering makes you stronger! But read on.

 “. . .and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5).

Suffering produces many things, but ultimately the most important is hope. St. Paul is clear. We don’t don’t become stronger and that’s it. We become hopeful because of God’s love.  This matches my realization that I don’t really want to be stronger for its own sake, I want to be loved.

Furthermore, St. Paul deliberately draws us back to God’s love which is “poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” We are given the love that makes the hope possible. The love makes the hope not disappoint us. We are given these things. I think that’s important. Hiding in inspirational mantras is that second appeal I mentioned earlier: the sense of control. But St. Paul’s ideal is different. Suffering for a Christian is not just another power play. It is not simply another way for us to flex our muscles and create ourselves. 

God’s love poured into our hearts is radically different than the other options. It’s not a stronger, leaner, tougher me who can simply take more. It’s not a submission to the mindlessness of the universe. It’s a question of whether God’s love has given meaning to our suffering. Will he be with us, strengthening us through his outpouring of love to make us strong, full of character, and ultimately, hopeful?

For me, yes, but for you, I have to ask you, which do you prefer?

On Rainbows and Floods: The Flood of 2015 Through a Catholic Kaleidoscope

Written by Elise G.

Do you remember kaleidoscopes being popular when you were a kid? Perhaps it was only in my little corner or the world, but for a short period they seemed to be at the height of fashion. Do you remember how different the world looked through one? Whatever you looked at was transformed and recreated again and again in a swirl of color and shapes. Everything looked different through a kaleidoscope, and this changing perspective was appealing to me as a child. Even now, as an adult, perspectives have never lost their intrigue.

One perspective that may be of interest on this blog is the Catholic perspective. Like a kaleidoscope, it changes the way everything looks. The world is an infinitely more colorful place through its lenses, and as the author Paul Weigel describes it, the Catholic sees life, “not as one damn thing after another but as the dramatic arena of creation, sin, redemption, and sanctification” (Letters to a Young Catholic, p. 12). The world is seen as transcending the three-dimensional limits of our vision and is steeped in layer upon layer of depth – depth that cannot be seen, but intuited.  If I may, I would like to take you on a short walk through this Catholic prism by way of a recent historical event: the Midwestern flood of 2015. 

A short while ago, on the day after Christmas 2015, it began to rain over Missouri. It did not stop raining for 48 hours, dumping ten inches of rain on my hometown of Eureka, MO. The ground, already saturated from previous rains, could not absorb any moisture, and torrents of water dug gullies into the hills in their race towards the rivers. Then the rivers swelled and spilled over. It happened quickly, and within a day after the rains, the little cluster of hills my family lived on had become an island. Looking back at this event, I am still amazed by the sheer magnitude and power of nature that was unleashed at this time. Houses were tossed off their foundations, trees uprooted and transplanted to new shores downstream, and the the world I knew was rendered silent. This silence was the most impressive effect of the floodwaters. Sitting with my neighbors on their porch on the first evening of our isolation, we could not hear any sounds. Not only had all animal life fallen silent, but there were no trains, no cars, no sirens - no sounds at all came from the valley below, and yet its whole landscape was being transformed.

There is something indescribable about being in the middle of unstoppable forces and silence. At the heart of life, both in its creation and its unraveling, one finds the silent presence of God. Looking from the Catholic perspective, we see that the powers of nature are not the sole elements at work. Rather, we see God reach into the world and interact with it, and in doing so, its forces of nature are not negated, but elevated. Through this silent movement, the created world itself becomes an agent in the act of creation. The effect of this perspective is mesmerizing, and is made even more so by the realization that we too are a part of this created world. We too are actors in the interplay between the silent movement of God and the forces of created nature, and our actions in the midst of these forces are also of great value, though at times they seem insignificant.

In fact, it was this human action that broke the silence that evening. As we sat on the porch late into the night, we saw a helicopter fly down towards the valley with its spotlight and begin to circle. As it circled over and over, and deeper and deeper into the night, there was no escaping the realization that much of the life may have been there was probably lost. Furthermore, we were well aware that at the end of this event our town would look different.  Life would be permanently changed for many. You do not just start fresh after a flood; all of the scattered debris and loss must be accounted for first. This clean-up, rebuilding, and reassessment were all to be a part of our ongoing involvement, but a different kind of involvement was required as well.

I believe our greatest interaction with this event, or with any event with these kinds of forces involved, is our openness to mercy. Though it took several days, the floodwaters finally did recede. Homes had been destroyed, businesses closed, and lives had been lost, and yet there was still a kind of clemency within the event.  This mercy was that we found ourselves thankful amidst the debris: thankful for life, for family, and for incredible neighbors and strong communities. While there was sadness over what was lost, there was also gratitude for what was found. Not least among these discoveries was that, despite the freezing cold, the darkness, and the unstoppable waters in the valley below my home, a man had clung to life on the roof of his house. What had seemed to be a hopeless search the night before ended when he and his dog were picked up the following morning by rescue crews. Even as our town picked up its life again and moved on, the silent movement and searching of God was and is still present among the chatter. In cooperation with this mercy, our little human actions, even in the face of unstoppable natural forces, became far more relevant.

As Catholics, we are exuberant for having been found and engaged in God’s constant presence. Through events such as the flood of 2015, we are made acutely aware of the incredible forces of nature, and can easily find ourselves lost in such situations. Though intimidating, there is comfort in the idea that we are not so much saved by our own doing and seeking, but through the action of a God who seeks us in silence. Through the lens of faith, the silent presence of God is made visible, and in this realization and surrender, we are swept away in the flood of His mercy. Finally, as we find ourselves in this mesmerizing presence, we are invited once again to be actors in God’s creation. As we look at the world through our little kaleidoscope of color, we find our God reaching through, constantly and silently, to pull us in.

 

This is Real Life

 

Currently, I am living what some might call a dream. For the last four months, I have spent every weekend exploring a new corner of Europe, I live in a 13th century monastery and I am studying incredible, life changing material. I am surrounded by some of the most incredible people I have ever met, all of whom have challenged me to be a better version of myself in their own unique ways. There is no doubt; this is a change of pace from the average daily routine, especially for most Americans.

 

Even though my current life is far from what most people would consider normal, I have been constantly struck by the notion that this is my life. This is not a break from reality, or a filler until I move onto something more permanent. These precious moments are exactly that, precious. These are moments that are making me into the person God wants me to be.

 

And you know what? So is whatever you are doing right now.

 

Are you a young newlywed settling into your first apartment? This is your life.

 

Are you a missionary in an exotic location? This is your life.

 

Are you a grad student buried in a library? This is your life.

 

Are you a recent grad trying to decide where you want to go from here? A young professional in a new city? A new parent? A retail associate? A struggling artist? An entrepreneur? A teacher? A traveler? This is your life.

 

Our lives pass in phases. Some phases are immersed in culture, some in isolation, some in study, some in work, some in travel, some in family, some in friends, some in chaos, some in quiet, and some in learning to juggle some combination of the above. This doesn’t mean that any of them are “filler” phases.

 

Because Christ came that we may have life and have it in abundance, I do no think this is just a matter of perspective. I do think, however, it takes perspective to see this as true in our own lives. We need to ask ourselves how we view our current reality, and recognize that it is valuable.

 

This reality is twofold, however. As much as your current state is precious, so is the next one. As much as we are called to appreciate our current position without being too worried about the future, we are also called to move into and appreciate the next moment without getting stuck in the past.

 

One of the most beautiful things about being Christian is you don’t have to have the future figured out, you can trust that there is beauty in the current moment, even if you don’t see it from within. You can trust that you are being guided on a mission.

 

For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. –Jeremiah 29:11

 

This doesn’t mean, however, that there is no responsibility on your part. I remember throughout leadership camps in high school, we did lots of trust building exercises. One of the most common involved a partner steering you through an obstacle course while you were blindfolded. You had no choice but to put your trust in them, and let them be your guide to get to the end. But they, as your guide, couldn’t take each step for you. Sometimes their direction was a gentle word; sometimes it was a jarring shove to one side or the other. You were still the one who had to put one foot in front of the other, and put in the work to get where you needed to go.

 

Because God speaks differently to all of us, his guidance will look different. Part of the Christian life is learning to recognize when he is asking you to step, learning from the bruises we get when we step under our own direction, and learning to trust in the steps he asks us to take.

 

This moment of your life is precious. And… wait 60 seconds… so is this one.

 

Moment by moment, we are given a gift. And moment by moment, we ask for the grace to trust that our next step will take us where we need to go, we ask that what ought to be carried with us will step in the same direction, and that we will be given the courage to let go of those people and things taking a step in a different direction. And we keep stepping, soaking up and giving back everything along the way.

 

Do you see your current position as precious? Or are you trying to step too quickly? Are you ready to step when you need to? Or are you too attached to your current position? Whatever the case, we must always keep in mind, whatever the case; you are passing through precious moments. Are you allowing them to be what they ought? Allowing them to penetrate your heart, without taking you over?

 

Remember, this is real life.